For some reason it’s not surprising that the history of flannel takes us way back to the 17th century in the Scottish Highlands. Back then, farmers wore the warm garment to protect themselves from the harsh elements that characterize the historic region. Today, the word flannel is used interchangeably with plaid or tartan, even though the word flannel deals with the actual fabric as opposed to its associated pattern. The warm fabric has come a long way since its humble beginnings and is now found everywhere from shirts and skirts to bedding and pajamas. Take a look below as we trace flannel’s history to see how it got to where it is today.
Originally, flannel was made from carded wool or worsted yarn, both of which are equally Scottish sounding despite their non-Scottish backgrounds. Carding is a mechanical process in which different fibers are broken up from their original clump form and made to lay individually with each other. The end result is a continuous web of fabric, called a sliver or tow, perfect for subsequent processing. Worsted yarn, despite also being made of wool, was not carded. Instead, the yarn was washed, gilled, and combed using heated long-tooth metal combs with the end result being similar to that of carded wool.
The fabric and its reputation made its way throughout Europe, first to France in the late 17th century, followed by Germany in the 18th century. The warm fabric continued to increase in popularity thanks to the Industrial Revolution which helped spread carding mills all over with most of the manufacturer’s based in Wales.
Of course the United States wasn’t far behind in the appreciation of the classic fabric, but it wasn’t until an entrepreneur by the name of Hamilton Carhartt in the late 19th century took matters into his own hands that flannel began to catch on. At the time, the US was experiencing rapid expansion in terms of railroad construction which often required workers to spend long hours in unfavorable, harsh conditions.
Carhartt being the observant enterpriser he was, noticed this gap in proper workwear and began interviewing railroad workers all over the country to gain insight into their ordeal and their desire to remedy it. Not long after that, he designed and manufactured an overall garment which proved popular among the working class and followed it up with the now iconic flannel. The family-owned company still makes flannels today like the Borg Shirt above.
The fabric continued to flourish throughout the 20th century, mostly among outdoor workers who savored the material’s warmth and rugged look. The image of this outdoor worker was captured in full by the North American folklore legend, Paul Bunyan, whose legacy continues today.
Besides a brief hiccup during the Great Depression, the material continued to be associated with the great outdoors even while being picked up by fashionable brands like Ralph Lauren whose advertisements kept up the association of flannel and the outdoors. Of course the classic American outdoor brands Pendleton, LL Bean, and Woolrich have stuck to their roots throughout their history with designs like the shirts above.
Flannel hit its peak in the late 80s and early 90s when grunge bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam wore the effortless fabric perfect for Seattle’s climate in opposition to the always awful popped collar look so dominant throughout the decade.
Since then the material has enjoyed steady use although it is now made almost exclusively of different materials like cotton and can be found in many collections such as A.P.C., Norse Projects, and Our Legacy.
Although the material may never reach the same level of popularity it enjoyed at the beginnings of the 90s, it certainly shows no sign of slowing down either. Make sure to stay warm with this winter in a flannel shirt, under a flannel bathrobe, lying in flannel bed.